As Pittsburgh makes marijuana possession a little less illegal, it is interesting to note that bales of cannabis once came here by the boatloads.
A local businesswoman ordered the bales and processed them downtown for customers who shipped them around the world.
Perhaps, I should explain. Mary Irwin made rope.
In all likelihood, the hemp that lined the riverbanks would not have been particularly good for smoking. Bummer.
Farmers would have hybridized their cannabis to maximize stalks and stems, giving rope makers lots of fluffy fiber to work with.
Today, law requires hemp growers for such industrial purposes to use plants hybridized to ensure a minimum of THC.
That’s the compound in the leaves and flower tops that expands people’s minds and/or makes them stupid.
Those who grow cannabis for inhaling purposes develop plants with a maximum of leaves, flowers and, of course, THC.
Mary Irwin didn’t know about THC. Oxygen hadn’t even been discovered yet.
It was the late 1700s. Her husband, John, a disabled Revolutionary War vet, set up a rope-walk along the Monongahela just before he died. It may be John did so in name only, and that Mary initiated the startup business and did the actual work.
Rope-walks were used to spin fiber into cordage and then twist and wrap that into lengths of rope.
That involved walking backwards while your hands worked. Rope length was determined by how far back you could walk without running into something.
So, river banks were good places to work, particularly in Pittsburgh. It only had about 1,500 people at the time.
Mary set out to meet the increasing demand for rope.
One sailing vessel alone could use more than 20 miles of rigging. Coal mines and wells needed rope, too. Church bells wouldn’t ring without it. Canal boats tethered to mules needed the twisted hemp. And, I suppose you couldn’t have hangings without rope.
Mary had her young son, also named John, to help. They started on the north bank near what is now the Smithfield Street bridge. The quality of Irwin rope combined with the growing need caused her to move repeatedly to larger . . . er . . . longer locales.
She moved closer to the Point, first on the Monongahela River and then the Allegheny River. In 1812, a young man with boyish looks showed up at her business. He was about to become the nation’s heroic darling, the object of its patriotic zeal. Continue reading…